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Tucked away in a peaceful pocket of the Highlands, you’ll find one of Scottish golf’s most mysterious and exclusive courses – Skibo Castle’s Carnegie Links.
Most have heard of it. Few have seen it. Fewer still have played it.
It is, quite simply, one of the country’s best-kept golfing secrets.
In the summer of 2016, I was lucky enough to be invited to enjoy the full Skibo experience by the estate’s Director of Golf, David Thomson.
A former European Tour pro, Aberdeen-born Thomson had been at Skibo for over 17 years by that point and had overseen major changes both on and off the golf course. The ownership changing hands, celebrity weddings, golf course renovations and much more besides – he’s been witness to the lot.
David is more than just an employee. He’s a big part of what makes the place tick.
“Why don’t you come up and see us?” he said. “Bring your wife, stay in the castle and we’ll get a round of golf in, too.” He didn’t have to ask twice.
The history of Skibo Castle is fascinating. It dates back to 1212 and, until 1545, it was used as a residence for the Bishops of Caithness. It was subsequently gifted by the Catholic church to John Gray in order to, as one account puts it, ‘reinforce its alliance with a powerful family’ and, in turn, to stop the Protestant uprising from spreading into the north of the country.
It has remained in private ownership ever since but had fallen into disrepair when, in 1897, it was acquired by Scottish industrialist Andrew Carnegie on a one-year lease, with an option to buy.
He took up that option the following year, shelling out a reported £85,000 – around £10m in today’s money. He spent more than double that on improvements, almost quadrupling the size of the estate, building its own loch (Loch Ospisdale), adjacent to which he commissioned a conservatory-style swimming pool.
The castle, meanwhile, had turrets, towers and battlements added to give it the look of a baronial mansion house, with the latest domestic appliances and cutting-edge American tech installed throughout.
It was a significant investment but loose change to Carnegie, who, at the height of his career, was reckoned to be second only to John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil as the richest man in the world.
Legend has it that Carnegie’s first and only child, Margaret, was the inspiration behind his decision to buy Skibo. Despite having lived in the US since the age of 12, when his family emigrated to Allegheny in Pennsylvania, Carnegie remained a proud Scot and wanted his daughter to be brought up in his homeland. “Margaret must have a Scottish home,” he is said to have told his wife, Louise.
The family moved there and Carnegie lived out his remaining years at the estate, which he often described as ‘Heaven on Earth’. Those words live on, embroidered onto the shoe bag gifted to all golfers who visit the Carnegie Links. More on that later.
After Carnegie died, Louise and Margaret returned to the US but regularly spent their summer holidays at Skibo. The property remained in the family until 1982 and, in 1990, was bought by English hotelier Peter de Savary.
It was de Savary who created The Carnegie Club, an exclusive, members-only organisation that was designed to appeal to the rich and famous.
Consequently, Hollywood A-listers became regular visitors to the estate. Madonna and Guy Ritchie even chose it for their wedding in December 2000, a bash attended by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Donatella Versace and Sting.
American billionaire Ellis Short purchased the estate from de Savary in 2003. Since then, the celebs have gone, replaced by a small but committed and enthusiastic membership of roughly 400. They may not be movie stars but they include some of the most influential businessmen and women in the world.
As an example, I got talking to one American gentleman in the professional shop early in the morning. He wore no obvious signs of wealth and he was one of the least ostentatious guys I’ve ever met. He looked every inch your average, American golfer.
As it turned out, he’s a hugely successful private equity investor who advised the Obama administration on economic policy. I only found that out later when I Googled him.
“That’s typical of our members,” Thomson told me. “They’re not ‘showy’. They’re down-to-Earth people who just so happen to be very successful. And, for the most part, they love golf.”
The castle is breathtaking. You are woken at 8am by the sound of a lone bagpiper outside. Breakfast is served with the gentle accompaniment of an organist playing in the main lobby.
All of the rooms on the ground floor are public rooms, so guests have ample space to roam. Special mention must be made of the incredible library, which is stocked with a huge collection of rare and ‘first edition’ books.
Literature played an important part in Carnegie’s upbringing, so much so that he later donated money from his own personal fortune to various cities and towns across the world to build libraries. To date, there are more than 2,500 Carnegie libraries across the globe, from the UK and USA to Fiji and Serbia.
The walls of the library in Skibo are filled from floor to ceiling with books. Ingeniously, during his initial top-to-toe refurbishment of the castle, Carnegie had the walls lined with steel so that, in the event of a fire razing the castle to the ground, the library and its contents would be preserved.
One thing may surprise as you walk around the castle: the position of the door handles. I’m hardly Sultan Kösen (look it up) but I found myself crouching to open them.
“There’s a good reason for that,” explained Thomson. “Andrew Carnegie was only 5ft 2in. When he bought the castle, he had all the door handles lowered to a height he found more manageable. It has been that way ever since.”
There are 21 bedrooms in the castle itself. All still have their original names, some taken from the surrounding regions – like Evelix, Ospisdale and Migdale, for example – and some from the colourful characters who have been associated with the estate down through the years, including St Gilbert, Montrose and Sigurd.
It was the Sigurd room that my wife and I stayed in. From your own private hallway, you enter into the main suite, with its beautiful wood-panelled walls, tasteful classic furnishings and spectacular four-poster bed.
The view over the grounds is a total delight, whilst the spacious adjoining bathroom – with its mosaic tiled floors, twin, free standing, lion-claw baths, marble sinks and separate loo – is just stunning.
We’ve stayed in some nice places but nowhere like this. It is class and sophistication on another level. More importantly, it’s damn comfy!
Dinner is an incredible experience. You have your choice of private dining in the room where breakfast is served or, better yet, you can join the members in Mrs Carnegie’s Dining Room, where guests are seated around a single mahogany table that dominates the room.
The club’s own raconteur Alan Grant keeps the conversation flowing before one of two things typically happen.
One, guests retire to the drawing room for a good old-fashioned communal sing-song around the piano. Or two, a ceilidh erupts in the dining room, which everyone joins in with. Yes, they do things rather differently at Skibo.
Mrs McEwan and I arrived at Skibo on a Thursday afternoon, most of which we spent roaming around the estate on a golf buggy. The only cars you see are black Range Rovers with blacked-out windows, which you can ask to be driven around in.
Valet parking is available if you have driven to the estate but the majority of its members don’t do that. Rather, they fly to Inverness airport where they are either collected by one of the estate’s drivers or take a helicopter up to the castle.
There is also a fleet of buggies sitting at the front door of the castle, which you are free to take whenever you like.
After a great night eating, drinking and blethering with David on the Thursday night, Jules and I went our separate ways on Friday morning. She headed for the spa – which I’m reliably informed is ‘out of this world’ – whilst I went to play the course with David.
“What time is best to play tomorrow?” I had asked him after dinner. “Any time you like,” he replied.
I asked: “Do we not need to reserve a tee time?”
“Not at all,” he laughed. “Around here, we stick to ‘Skibo Time’.”
That works for me! Seriously, it must be the most laid-back championship golf experience in the country.
I met him in the clubhouse at 10am on the Friday morning. It’s about five minutes in one of the buggies from the castle doors and takes you past some beautiful wooden lodges. There are, in fact, 11 lodges and cottages on the estate which, again, members can stay in. Some even come with their own private Land Rover.
The golf facilities are accessed via a narrow wooden bridge, about 100m long and little more than a couple of metres wide. Immediately, you know you’re going somewhere special. On arrival, you are welcomed by friendly staff – special mention here for Sharon and Cameron – and directed towards the changing rooms.
You are assigned a locker, complete with your own engraved nameplate, which is a great touch.
An even nicer touch is waiting inside in the shape of what must be the best ‘goodie bag’ in golf.
A whole host of treats, including a Skibo whisky miniature, shot glass and golf balls, are contained within a tan leather shoe bag, which has an embroidered Skibo logo on one side and Carnegie’s description of the estate – the aforementioned ‘Heaven on Earth’ – on the reverse. It’s not your average ‘tees in a pouch’.
Unlike the castle, the clubhouse is a much more modern building. It has undergone significant upgrades in recent years, with further expansion plans in the offing. The main dining area is fantastic and boasts a brand new, modern, open kitchen.
Amongst its many toys is a pizza oven which cost a five-figure sum to buy and cooks your pizza in just four minutes. Floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides ensure the room is nice and bright, too, with the spectacular view over the 18th green also taking in the Dornoch Firth towards the Struie Hills.
Outside, the driving range sits adjacent to the 16th fairway. With it being rather a slightly chilly morning, David and I spent around 45 minutes hitting balls to get warmed up – during which time I got the best lesson of my life – before finally hitting the links.
You know when people say ‘there’s not a weak hole on the course’? More often than not, they’re talking rubbish. Not, though, in the case of the Carnegie Links. It is simply awesome. Honestly, I have neither enough nor adequate superlatives.
I should qualify this statement with a couple of important bits of context. Firstly, my favourite type of course is a quirky links. The Carnegie Links is most certainly that, in all the best ways possible.
Secondly, the weather on the day we played was, as I mentioned, not ideal. The rain had stopped by the time we teed off but it was still pretty overcast and the air was dank and heavy, so it’s not as if I was seeing it bathed in glorious sunshine. That, I think, makes the impression it made all the more noteworthy.
It’s a very fair course, in so much as the fairways are pretty wide and the fescue grass that flanks them is kept thin and wispy so you will, more often than not, find your mishits.
“Our members’ handicaps range from quite low to very high, so we need to set the course up in such a way that everybody can enjoy it,” explained David.
“They are mostly hard-working people who put in long hours in some quite significant businesses so, when they come here, they want to be able to unwind – but they’re not going to be able to do that on a course that beats them up.” It’s a smart approach.
After an ‘iffy’ start, I settled into my stride after enjoying a Skibo custom between the third green and fourth tee: a mug of hot chocolate with Baileys.
For me, the sixth to 13th is the strongest and most memorable stretch of holes. The sixth is a brilliant par-3 that bears more than a passing resemblance to the same hole at Trump International Golf Links.
The seventh, meanwhile, is one of the best holes I’ve ever played. No word of a lie. A short par-4, the fairway is split in two by a thin bank of rough. The left-hand side has a narrow landing area but gives the best angle up and into the elevated green.
The right side, meantime, is the safer option – wider and flatter – but leaves you with a steep, uphill approach to the putting surface. I knocked it down the right with a 3-wood and then hit it to ten feet or so with a wedge.
I, of course, missed the putt but walked off grinning from ear to ear. It is a world-class golf hole. The eighth, which flirts with the banks of the Dornoch Firth, is equally good, as is the long par-3 ninth.
However, for many, the par-4 12th is the pick of the bunch. It is a bit like a ‘reverse 18th’ at Pebble Beach, with water encroaching all the way down the right of a fairway that doglegs ever-so-slightly from left to right.
A special mention should also be made of the fabulous 17th. A driveable par-4, it runs along the westernmost bank of the course, with water on three sides.
With a little bit of breeze behind, most players will have enough in them to knock it on the green. If you don’t catch it right, though, there are cavernous bunkers waiting to punish you.
As well as being the Director of Golf, David is also largely responsible for the current course layout. Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie had designed an 18-hole course for de Savary back in the mid-nineties but David believed the site wasn’t making full use of its potential.
“There was an awful lot of gorse and trees all over the course but I was of the opinion that it would be much better to rip all that out,” he explained.
His logic was three-fold: make better use of the natural features of what is a unique strip of land; provide better views; and find better ways to enhance the challenge.
Testament to the relationship he has with owner Ellis Short, his vision for the course was sanctioned and, between 2005 and 2007, his changes were carried out in tandem with Mackenzie.
Impressively, considering the scale of the work that was carried out relatively recently, it’s hard to imagine the course looking any other way than it does now. There is no obvious scarring, whilst the changes look like they have always been there.
“It was a lot of hard work and even harder graft but I think it was worth it,” added David.
He’s not wrong. I can recall every tee, every green and every shot I hit in clear and lucid detail. That doesn’t happen often. When it does, you know you’ve played somewhere very special indeed.
So, how can you get a piece of the action? Simple: pick up the phone and book a tee time. Whilst membership of the club is cost prohibitive for most people, you don’t necessarily need to be or know a member to play there.
A limited number of tee times are made available each week – eight of them, in fact, between Mondays and Fridays – for non-members to play.
Again, it’s not cheap. It’s £300 per person (correct at time of writing). But is it worth it? Absolutely, yes. You get to play a course that very few people have ever seen, let alone set foot on.
It’s also always in immaculate condition, given that fewer than 1,000 rounds are played on it per year. It’s great fun, a fair and proper test.
On top of that, the welcome you get and hospitality you are treated to is consistently out of the very tip of the fifth star.
Heaven on Earth? I’ll say.
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